As she turned to follow Wolf and Penny, she spotted her green canvas medic pack resting on the floor near the door where it had been blown in that first explosion. She gave it exactly a millisecond’s thought, then bulleted across the room, snagged the pack in a one-handed grab, and wheeled back to blast up the stairs. Peeling right, she saw Wolf kick open the bathroom door, whip aside a shower curtain, and cram Penny into the tub.

Downstairs, Alex heard another smash of metal against wood, more shots. And voices. It took every ounce of willpower not to scurry after Wolf and Penny. Just a few more seconds. She felt Wolf moving up behind her, and then his hand on her arm as he tried to pull her out of his way. But his shot would have to be dead-on, and there wouldn’t be time for another.

She looked at him. “I have something better than the rifle,” she said, and then she was pulling the flare gun from the small of her back. She read in his face and smelled in his scent the shock of recognition, and understood: Wolf knew this gun.

Below, she heard the door burst open. Peering around the corner, she spied three of those weird Changed, in camo-whites and armed with what she thought were Mac-10s, fanning out in the great room. In the center of her head, she felt the muted thump: go-go push-push. Then she heard murmurs—voices—and spotted four old men moving in from the kitchen to meet them.

Okay, Dad. Crouching, poking the pistol between the banister rails, steadying the flare gun in both hands, she picked her spot. Just like the target range.

She pulled the trigger.

74

“Chris!” someone shouted. “Chris, wait, let me—” But Chris didn’t stop to look, didn’t stop to think, didn’t stop, couldn’t stop, wouldn’t. Roaring, he brought the skillet around like a batter, so hard and with so much force he felt his shoulders try to pop from their sockets. The Changed boy was still gawping up at Chris when the skillet connected—and the sound, already so deep in Chris’s memory and his nightmares, became real again: a solid slam, the clunk of an ax biting into a tree trunk. Of a hammer cratering bone and brain. Of the flat of a cast-iron skillet smashing skull.

The boy’s head whipped to the side. Over the clamor in his head, Chris heard the sharp crackle as the neck snapped.

Panting, blood painting his cheeks, Chris stood over the body as a voice boomed: Go on, boy, hit him again, hit him, go on . . . “Go on,” he said in a voice not his own. “Go on, boy, hit him bloody, make him pay, you know you w-want . . . you kn-know . . .”

Then his knees buckled as the ground opened and Chris swooned into the dark and—

“Chris.” A voice in his ear, and then a shake. “Wake up. Open your eyes.” “Nooo.” He was on the snow again, under the tiger-trap, in a pool of blood, and slowly dying, freezing to death. Everything hurt. He tried turning from the voice, but a hand hooked his chin. “I can’t,” he said. “It’s too hard; it hurts too much to see.”

“Stop this,” the voice said. “Open your eyes.”

“Why?” he asked, even as his lids creaked open. Of course, it was Jess, with her Medusa hair and black-mirror eyes: Chris in the right, Chris in the left. Or Simon and Simon, depending on how you looked at it. “Why is this up to me? What do you want? What good does it do me to see anything? I can’t change what’s already happened. I couldn’t help Alex. I didn’t help Lena. Peter wouldn’t let me because he never told me.”

“You refused to see.”

“Fine.” Another bolt of pain grabbed his throat. “Leave me alone,” he wheezed, thinly. “Please, Jess, why can’t you let me alone? Why won’t you let me die?”

“Someone will die. Someone must. Without blood, there is no forgiveness.”

“You’re dead. This is the Land of the Dead, and I’m having a dream, but I don’t understand. I want to know what this means.”

“Tell me your dream, and I will tell you the truth.”

“And what is that?” A weak laugh dribbled out of his mouth with a trickle of blood. “What’s truth?”

“What lives here”—she drew her fingers, cool and dry, over his forehead—“is not the same as what resides here.” She placed a hand over his heart, and he cried out because her touch was electric, bright and awful. “Let go of the hammer, Chris. Forgive yourself. Forgive Peter.”

“Why does that matter?” He licked blood from his lips. “I already said I understand.”

“And that is why”—another electric finger to his chest, prodding a scream—“this hurts so much. The truth of the heart is the more fearsome to bear, because from love springs grief. Truth is in your mouth, on your tongue, in your blood. Let go of your anger, Chris. Let Peter, as you remember him, speak to you.”

“He can’t,” Chris said. “He’s dead.”

“Call him back.” Jess pressed a palm over his eyes, and now he was truly in the dark again. “Quickly, Chris. In your blindness and from grief, call in love and do it now before it’s too late, before Peter is lost, before the light goes—”

“—out?”

“No, I think he’s coming around. Chris?” A tap on his cheek.

“Chris, wake up.”

Chris faded back, aware first of the sharp nibs of broken plates

under his legs, and then the wall against his back, and finally a hand

cupping the back of his head.

“Chris.” Jayden patted his cheek again. “Are you all right? Is this

the only one? Where’s everyone else? Where’s—”

“Hannah.” His eyes snapped open. Everything rushed back, like

water into an empty glass. “Isaac,” he wheezed again, clutching

Jayden’s arm. “Barn.”

“What?” Jayden shot a glance at Connor, who was also crouched

alongside. “What are you talking about? What about the barn?” “Guns.” Shots carried, especially now that there was nothing—no

cars, no planes, no machinery—to mask them. How long had he

been out? “Didn’t you hear?”

“We heard gunfire,” Connor said. “But we were north. We

couldn’t tell where it was coming from. As we got closer, I actually

thought it was coming from the east.”

East. There was something important about that. “No. Hannah

and Isaac are in the barn, and there were Changed headed that way.” “What?” Connor was genuinely skeptical. “They can’t find us.


Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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